Essential Advice for Beginning Writers: An Interview with Kerri Majors
Kerri Majors is the editor and founder of YARN, the Young Adult Review Network, an online literary journal of YA short stories, essays, and poetry. As if this role doesn’t keep her busy enough, she is also the author of This Is Not a Writing Manual, a refreshing and candid memoir geared toward young writers. In it, she shares her own trials-by-fire, successes, disappointments, and thoughts on the writing life. This is the perfect book to share with the young writer in your life, and there are plenty of pearls of wisdom and inspiration for writers of all ages, beginners and veterans alike.
I sat down with Kerri to chat about what it means to be a writer, what makes for stand-out, top-notch fiction, and the writing mistakes she sees in her role as a fiction editor.
—by Rachel Randall, Managing Editor of Writer’s Digest Books
Why did you decide to write This Is Not a Writing Manual?
I never-ever-EVER thought I would write a book like this. In fact, I used to resist even reading books like this one—until I finally broke down and read Anne Lamott’s amazing Bird by Bird, which made me laugh and cry with recognition. Reading her book, then assigning it to my students for many years, began to break down my barrier to “writing books.”
Then I started running YARN and getting more and more immersed in the teen and YA writing community, and I began to see a real need for a book like TINAWM—a kind of mentor book like Bird by Bird had been for me as an adult writer, but a book that would be specifically for young writers (14- to 24-year-olds), to let them know that they were not alone on the long road of the writing life.
I tried to think back to the questions and dreams I had as a high school and college-age writer, and then I tried to address those concerns (I also canvassed some writer friends so that I wouldn’t just gaze at my navel the whole time). I wanted to offer a balance of very practical advice (like how to find a job that will pay your rent and feed your soul, and how to schedule writing into a busy life), and also emotional support (like how to deal with the jealousies inherent in writer-writer friendships, and how to put an astounding amount of rejection into perspective).
Have you always self-identified as a writer?
It’s funny, but when I moved to New York City after college to intern at the Guggenheim Museum, I was totally convinced I was going to become a curator and dabble in writing on the side. It was my parents who knew I would wind up writing a book, and that in order to do it I’d have to devote my heart, soul, and time to it.
They were right and I was wrong, no doubt because they had watched me write and write and write and write for years, and they knew it was in me in a way even I didn’t know yet. Though I would flirt with other careers, writing always pulled me back, again and again. Eventually I got my MFA in fiction, and choosing to get an actual degree in writing kind of put a stamp of permanence and authenticity on my aspirations.
So, no, I didn’t always identify myself as a writer. But others did.
In terms of identifying myself as a writer at cocktail parties, and other public events—that didn’t come until much later, even after the MFA. It didn’t really come until I had a book contract in hand. Before that, it was always, “I’m a professor … and a writer,” or “I’m an editor … and a writer,” or “I’m a mom … and a writer.” Now it’s, “I’m a writer, and I also edit and teach. And I also have a beautiful daughter … Now where did she go???”
What do you think it takes to be a Writer with a capital W?
At cocktail parties or in your own mind?
At cocktail parties, it’s probably the book contract, I’m not going to lie. Without the contract, I always thought it was more honest to say “I’m an editor/professor/mom, and I’m also working on a book.” It goes back to that hobby/job debate you guys kindly excerpted from my book. It’s more than a hobby, it’s work, but without the contract, it’s not a job either.
In my own mind, I was a Writer for many years. Writing was always in me, and it was always the thing I was dying to tell someone about myself, after explaining what it was I actually did for a living.
Here is one major thing: You have to be a Writer in your own mind before you’ll ever be a Writer at cocktail parties. You have to take your aspirations and craft seriously, or you’ll never get anywhere.
After reading the book, some of the essays almost seem like therapy for the young writer. Did you deal with some of your inner “writing” demons while working on the book?
Oh, yeah. The most haunting chapters are the two about “Hating Your Best Friend” and “Hating Yourself.” Those chapters were included in my book proposal, but I had no idea how I was actually going to write them until events unfolded, and I wrote a kind of journalistic rant that served as a first draft. Those were the chapters I fretted over the most.
So yeah, fessing up to my less attractive emotions (envy, hate, self-loathing) was not fun, but I hope other writers will benefit from reading about my experiences. I don’t think I can prevent anyone from feeling those bad things; rather, I hope I can help writers feel less alone when they do feel them.
You’re privy to a lot of fiction submissions through your role as editor of YARN. What really “wow’s” you in a piece?
A strong voice and/or unique story that really zings off the first page. One that really blew me away last year was “Zig to the Zag”—the rapper-poet voice is just so spot-on and one-of-a-kind, plus there is mystery (what happened to the purse?) from the first page. But another story with a quieter voice and awesome-from-the-get-go story also blew me away, and won an award from the SCBWI: “Swimming Naked.”
YARN has published many other excellent stories, but those two always stand out in my mind as “slush” submissions that immediately grabbed hold of me and didn’t let go. That’s also key—a great first page is one thing, but keeping up the voice and story for another 5 or 15 pages is tough, and essential.
And what is the number-one mistake people make?
I don’t think there is one I can name. I mean, the most common mistake is “boring writing.” But boring can mean so many things: lackluster prose, seen-it-before plot, cliché characters, not enough action, too much introspection … the list goes on, and each writer’s brand of “boring” is going to be specific to their writing styleand habits.
The only way to avoid “boring” is to workshop your work in classes or writing groups that will give you honest feedback and help you target places that need help. Writers need to find readers they admire and trust, whose feedback they are willing to take. If they do, their writing will not be boring … at least not eventually, after lots of practice.
What do you think are the top three essential qualities to a good piece of fiction?
Voice, character, story. Not in that order. All three are equally important.
What do you wish a more experienced writer had told you when you were first starting out?
In the book, I talk about the advice I got as a young writer, and I am grateful to have gotten one key piece of advice early, when I was in college: “Don’t do anything that will kill your creative writing.” Simple to say, hard to follow.
In addition to that, I wish an experienced writer I really trusted and admired could have handed me a great Malcolm Gladwell essay called “Late Bloomers,” which talks about the difference between artists who find success early and those who find it late. I think it might have set my mind at ease when I discovered that I was not, in fact, Jonathan Safran Foer.
In conjunction, I wish that a more experienced writer could have sat me down and told me that no matter how much talent I had, success was probably going to take a long time. Publishing moves slowly. It’s highly subjective. It takes a long time to hone your craft. And all of that is okay. Maybe even desirable.